Holiday Fiction: The Chanukah Light

My top-coat was already in my hand, and yet I could not decide: to go, or not to go — to give my lesson! O, it is so unpleasant outside, such horrible weather! — a mile’s trudge — and then what?

“Once more: pakád, pakádti” — once more: the old house-master, who has got through his sixty and odd years of life without knowing any grammar; who has been ten times to Leipzig, two or three times to Dantzig; who once all but landed in Constantinople — and who cannot understand such waste of money: Grammar, indeed? A fine bargain!

Then the young house-master, who allows that it is far more practical to wear ear-locks, a fur-cap, and a braided kaftan, to consult with a “good Jew,” and not to know any grammar … not that he is otherwise than orthodox himself … but he is obliged, as a merchant, to mix with men, to wear a hat and a stiff shirt; to permit his wife to visit the theatre; his daughter, to read books; and to engage a tutor for his son….

“My father, of course, knows best! But one must move with the times!” He cannot make up his mind to be left in the lurch by the times! “I only beg of you,” he said to me, “don’t make an unbeliever of the boy! I will give you,” he said, “as much as would pay for a whole lot of grammar, if you will not teach him that the earth goes round the sun!”

And I promised that he should never hear it from, me, because — because this was my only lesson, and I had a sick mother at home!

To go, or not to go?

The whole family will be present to watch me when I give my lesson.

She also?

She sits in the background, always deep in a book; now and again she lifts her long, silken lashes, and a little brightness is diffused through the room; but so seldom, so seldom!

And what is to come of it?

Nothing ever can come of it, except heart-ache.

“Listen!” My mother’s weak voice from the bed recalls me to myself. “The Feldscher says, if only I had a pair of warm, woollen socks, I might creep about the room a little!”

That, of course, decides it.

Except for the lady of the house, who has gone to the play, as usual without the knowledge of her father-in-law, I find the whole family assembled round the pinchbeck samovar. The young house-master acknowledges my greeting with a negligent “a good year to you!” and goes on turning over in his palm a pack of playing cards. Doubtless he expects company.

The old house-master, in a peaked cap and a voluminous Turkish dressing-gown, does not consider it worth while to remove from his lips the long pipe with its amber mouthpiece, or to lift his eyes from off his well-worn book of devotions. He merely gives me a nod, and once more sinks his attention in the portion appointed for Chanukah.

She also is intent on her reading, only her book, as usual, is a novel.

My arrival makes a disagreeable impression on my pupil.

“O, I say!” and he springs up from his seat at the table, and lowers his black-ringed, little head defiantly, “lessons to-day?”

“Why not?” smiles his father.

“But it’s Chanukah!” answers the boy, tapping the floor with his foot, and pointing to the first light, which has been placed in the window, behind the curtain, and fastened to a bit of wood.

“Quite right!” growls the old gentleman.

“Well, well,” says the younger one, with indifference, “you must excuse him for once!”

I have an idea that she has become suddenly paler, that she bends lower over her book.

I wish them all good night, but the young house-master will not let me go.

“You must stay to tea!”

“And to ‘rascals with poppy-seed!’” cries my pupil, joyfully. He is quite willing to be friends, so long as there is no question of “pakád, pakádti.”

I am diffident as to accepting, but the boy seizes my hand, and, with a roguish smile on his restless features, he places a chair for me opposite to his sister’s.

Has he observed anything? On my side, of course, I mean….

She is always abstracted and lost in her reading. Very likely she looks upon me as an idler, or even worse … she does not know that I have a sick mother at home!

“It will soon be time for you to dress!” exclaims her father, impatiently.

“Soon, very soon, Tatishe!” she answers hastily, and her pale cheeks take a tinge of color.

The young house-master abandons himself once more to his reflections; my pupil sends a top spinning across the table; the old man lays down his book, and stretches out a hand for his tea.

Involuntarily I glance at the Chanukah light opposite to me in the window.

It burns so sadly, so low, as if ashamed in the presence of the great, silvered lamp hanging over the dining-table, and lighting so brilliantly the elegant tea-service.

I feel more depressed than ever, and do not observe that she is offering me a glass of tea.

“With lemon?” her melancholy voice rouses me.

“Perhaps you prefer milk?” says her father.

“Look out! the milk is smoked!” cries my pupil, warningly.

An exclamation escapes her:

“How can you be so …!”

Silence once more. Nothing but a sound of sipping and a clink of spoons. Suddenly my pupil is moved to inquire:

“After all, teacher, what is Chanukah?”

“Ask the rabbi to-morrow in school!” says the old man, impatiently.

“Eh!” is the prompt reply, “I should think a tutor knew better than a rabbi!”

The old man casts an angry glance at his son, as if to say: “Do you see?”

I want to know about Chanukah, too!” she exclaims softly.

“Well, well,” says the young house-master to me, “let us hear your version of Chanukah by all means!”

“It happened,” I begin, “in the days when the Greeks oppressed us in the land of Israel. The Greeks—” But the old man interrupts me with a sour look:

“In the Benedictions it says: ‘The wicked Kingdom of Javan.’”

“It comes to the same thing,” observes his son, “what we call Javan, they call Greeks.”

“The Greeks,” I resume, “oppressed us terribly! It was our darkest hour. As a nation, we were threatened with extinction. After a few ill-starred risings, the life seemed to be crushed out of us, the last gleam of hope had faded. Although in our own country, we were trodden under foot like worms.”

The young house-master has long ceased to pay me any attention. His ear is turned to the door; he is intent on listening for the arrival of a guest.

But the old house-master fixes me with his eye, and, when I have a second time used the word “oppressed,” he can no longer contain himself:

“A man should be explicit! ‘Oppressed’—what does that convey to me? They forced us to break the Sabbath; they forbade us to keep our festivals, to study the Law, even to practice circumcision.”

“You play ‘Preference’?” inquires the younger gentleman, suddenly, “or perhaps even poker?”

Once more there is silence, and I continue: “The misfortune was aggravated by the fact that the nobility and the wealthy began to feel ashamed of their own people, and to adopt Greek ways of living. They used to frequent the gymnasiums.”

She and the old gentleman look at me in astonishment.

“In the gymnasiums of those days,” I hasten to add, “there was no studying—they used to practice gymnastics, naked, men and women together—”

The two pairs of eyes lower their gaze, but the young house-master raises his with a flash.

What did you say?”

I make no reply, but go on to speak of the theatres where men fought wild beasts and oxen, and of other Greek manners and customs which must have been contrary to Jewish tradition.

“The Greeks thought nothing of all this; they were bent on effacing every trace of independent national existence. They set up an altar in the street with an ‘Avodeh zoroh,’ and commanded us to sacrifice to it.”

“What is that?” she asks in Polish.

I explain; and the old man adds excitedly:

“And a swine, too! We were to sacrifice a swine to it!”

“And there was found a Jew to approach the altar with an offering.

“But that same day, the old Maccabeus, with his five sons, had come down from the hills, and before the Greek soldiers could intervene, the miserable apostate was lying in his blood, and the altar was torn down. In one second the rebellion was ablaze. The Maccabees, with a handful of men, drove out the far more numerous Greek garrisons. The people were set free!

“It is that victory we celebrate with our poor, little illumination, with our Chanukah lights.”

“What?” and the old man, trembling with rage, springs out of his chair. “That is the Chanukah light? Come here, wretched boy!” he screams to his grandson, who, instead of obeying, shrinks from him in terror.

The old man brings his fist down on the table, so that the glasses ring again.

“It means—when we had driven out the unclean sons of Javan, there was only one little cruse of holy olive-oil left….”

But a fit of coughing stops his breath, and his son hastens up, and assists him into the next room.

I wish to leave, but she detains me.

“You are against assimilation, then?” she asks.

“To assimilate,” I reply, “is to consume, to eat, to digest. We assimilate beef and bread, and others wish to assimilate us—to eat us up like bread and meat.”

She is silent for a few seconds, and then she asks anxiously:

“But will there always, always be wars and dissensions between the nations?”

“O no!” I answer, “one point they must all agree—in the end.”

“And that is?”

“Humanity. When each is free to follow his own bent, then they will all agree.”

She is lost in thought, she has more to say, but there comes a tap at the door—

“Mamma!” she exclaims under her breath, and escapes, after giving me her hand—for the first time!

———

On the next day but one, while I was still in bed, I received a letter by the postman.

The envelope bore the name of her father’s firm: “Jacob Berenholz.”

My heart beat like a sledge-hammer. Inside there were only ten rubles—my pay for the month that was not yet complete.

Good-bye, lesson!

^^^

Story by Isaac Loeb Perez. Translated by Helena Frank.

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